BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE GUNS OF NAVARONE

By • May 23rd, 2000 •

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All’s well till Act Three of this rousing, morally complex World War II epic. Then its character arcs either end weirdly, or are edited poorly, including Stanley Baker’s as the Butcher of Barcelona, whose death is not covered clearly and leaves us confused, James Darren’s as the murder-happy’kid’, whose demise is oddly drawn, and Anthony Quinn’s as the resistence fighter who swims, wounded, all the way out to the rescue boat, only to announce that he can’t make the last three feet. Gregory Peck’s character stays alive and wound-free, but his big third act scene is a rebuttal to David Niven’s snide explosives expert’s verbal attack on his morality which, I guess, was supposed to tilt the scales in Peck’s favor but, despite Niven’s sheepishly apologetic attitude thereafter, it was his words that seemed the most truthful, while Peck’s theatrical choice of delivery seemed very’Abraham Lincoln’ and out of tone with the rest of the film.

Well, enough carping. It’s a splendid adventure. 2 1/2 hours of thrilling suspence that absolutely delivers, even if I’m finding problems here and there. Two terrific action scenes in particular – first as the enemy boards our intrepid team’s fishing boat, and later as they scale four hundred foot high cliffs in a driving rain – are played back to back practically without dialogue. J. Lee Thompson, undertaking his first major directoral challenge, and the gifted cinematographer Oswald (Moby Dick, Moulin Rouge) Morris block and frame their ensemble cast magnificently. Dimitri Tiomkin’s music is, at times, too exclamatory, but at other times it is entirely absent, letting set pieces play out by themselves. Which sounds like I’m saying I didn’t like it, but I did, pretty much, and the main theme is strong and memorable like a good bottle of retsina.

The cast, too, is strong, from Peck and Quinn and Niven, down to Baker, Darren (surprisingly), Anthony Quayle, Irene Papas and Gia Scala. In much smaller roles are a fledgling Richard Harris and future director Bryan (The Whisperers, Seance on a Wet Afternoon) Forbes.

A commentary track inhabited by J. Lee Thompson is disappointing. He’s too old to bring it all back vividly, and spends much time redundantly recounting what was shot on location and what was in the studio. He does remember how troubled Gia Scala was, and seems to suggest that her later suicide was not unexpected. Quinn he found troubling in a good way. Niven almost died of some unknown illness contracted in the fetid water of the super-gun set.

Much more satisfying is the retrospective documentary “Memories of Navarone”, in which some of the cast members appear, including James Darren, who has aged ridiculously well. There are also several silly black & white featurettes made at the time, one particularly amusing which features Scala and Papas taking advantage of a day off to go shopping. Neither of them strikes me as quite the type to be doing what they’re doing, and so I think their performances here are on a par with what they gave us in the film itself.

The print quality, a preservation effort by UCLA, is really gorgeous. Hard, subdued colors, and a beautiful widescreen look which the FIR screening’committee’ considered a completely different experience from seeing the film on TV. Myself, I’ve never watched it on TV. My memories of seeing it in release were too precious to let myself in for a small screen shaved-off travesty. But I’m told everything about it, not just the colors, is far superior to what’s been seen over the years. When released, the film had excellent stereo separation, and the Dolby Digital sound on the DVD is effective.

Peck brought Thompson back to Hollywood where he next directed Cape Fear, making it two winners in a row. Later, Thompson and Navarone writer/producer Carl Foreman teamed up again for MacKenna’s Gold, and undid everything they’d done right in this film. Columbia/Tri Star has released that one on DVD as a’Western Classic’, and it’s big and laughable – definately on my short list of the worst films ever made – and if you have a long evening to party through, why not double-bill them? Peck’s back, as is Anthony Quayle, but other than Julie Newmar’s ludicrous but very hot nude swimming scene, there’s nothing dramatic that works and even the special effects go hysterically wrong. It’s not for nothing that Thompson doesn’t provide a commentary track on this one, and that there are no documentaries, no featurettes, and the only trailers provided are for The Guns of Navarone and Lawrence of Arabia. One thing though: at 141.43, Peck watches as Sharif drifts into a fantasy of his life in Paris when and if they find the gold, and for a moment, for a few flash frames, we see Sharif as he envisions himself, lying under the desert night sky in a tuxedo and high hat, and for that incredibly foolish moment it becomes clear that the only other role he was born to play besides Sherif Ali in Lawrence, and never did, was…Max Linder!

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